Doc and Reba spend countless hours visiting assisted living facilities, hospitals, nursing homes and schools. Bringing joy and happiness to others has been a focus of their life since they’ve been a year old. Now 8 years old, Doc and his 5-year-old “sibling” Reba also serve as leaders, modeling appropriate behavior and assisting others in their training to become therapy pets.
The desire to give back led Agoura Hills resident Mary Lou Miller to certify her Border Collie, Doc, and Standard Poodle, Reba, to bring comfort to others as therapy pets.
Together, the team visits people in nursing and assisted living facilities, hospice centers and care homes, hospitals, schools, libraries and more, with the aim of brightening someone’s day.
“Making people—kids, patients, seniors—happy” drives Mary Lou and her dogs to spend much of their time working with others in need of emotional support and comfort.
Mary Lou discovered the rewards of being part of a therapy pet team about 10 years ago.
“I had a Border Collie that loved people,” she says. “Since our kids were all out of the house I had the time to get him certified and visit assisted living facilities. I’m more involved than ever since I’m retired.”
As a Chapter Leader with the nonprofit volunteer organization Love on a Leash, Mary Lou assists those in the Conejo Valley area, including Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Westlake and Thousand Oaks, get involved.
“I now certify other dogs, and I use mine so the new dogs can see how they are supposed to behave,” explains Mary Lou, who has helped dozens of dogs and their owners become therapy pets.
Love on a Leash-certified therapy pets participate in numerous programs and activities to help calm those in stressful situations. During the recent Thomas Fire, LOAL volunteer Kathy Young and her therapy dog, Remi, a Doberman, visited with firefighters at the Lake Cachuma Fire Camp, bringing smiles to the weary crews as they took a break from battling the flames.
“They were very thankful,” says Mary Lou. “Some of the firemen teared up…it was very touching,” she adds.
LOAL therapy pets also provide stress relief to high school and college students during finals week and participate in special programs, like reading programs at the library where young readers read aloud to dog “listeners.” Reading to the dogs helps build confidence and self-esteem for new readers, as the dogs listen without judgment or correction and provide a calming presence.
Being part of a pet therapy team, “Just makes you feel like you are making a little difference in someone’s life,” says Mary Lou.
The growth of LOAL serves as evidence of the rewards of the program. Since its beginning in the early 1980s by pet therapy enthusiasts in northern San Diego, LOAL incorporated in 1995 and has expanded to include chapters in nearly every state, with more than 2,000 members.
Committed to “bringing comfort, happiness, and healing to more people nationwide by increasing public awareness of pet-provided therapy,” LOAL certifies dogs, cats and even rabbits to provide effective therapy services in communities throughout the nation.
With headquarters in San Diego County, Love on a Leash members have established area chapters to serve local communities and assist in training, certification and coordinating visits.
What is a Therapy Pet?
A therapy pet primarily provides emotional support, helping to put a smile on someone’s face and bring cheer to their lives. These pets and their owners volunteer to visit with others in a variety of settings, including senior centers, hospitals and schools. Unlike service or companion animals, LOAL therapy pets do not have any legal protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
Certifying Your Pet
Love on a Leash® provides certification procedures for therapy pets and their owners and promotes public awareness of the benefits of pet-provided therapy. To become a certified therapy pet, animals and their owners undergo evaluations they must pass as a team. Certification typically includes insurance coverage, consistent visit and behavior guidelines, animal health assurances and cleanliness standards.
Therapy pets can be any size, breed, color, shape or gender. Personality is the most important factor, as the therapy pets should enjoy being around people, be even tempered and able to accept handling by other people.
“They need to have the heart; it’s all about the heart,” says Mary Kuebler, who knew her Golden Retriever Peek a Boo was meant to be a therapy dog after she was gifted to Mary. Peek a Boo had spent the first 6 years of her life as a breeding dog before coming to Mary.
“When I met her, I said to her, ‘You need to go into therapy work’,” recalls Mary, who makes regular visits to a senior rehab center, the Ronald McDonald House in Los Angeles and playdates with special needs children through Brandon’s Village at local parks. People respond to Peek a Boo’s visits with reactions ranging from “the biggest smiles you can imagine to tears of joy.”
Mastering basic obedience skills, such as responding to commands, including Sit, Lay Down, Heel, Stay and Come, is the first step to becoming certified as a therapy pet. Becoming a member of LOAL involves being evaluated by a Certified Behaviorist, Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Obedience Instructor, or AKC-approved Canine Good Citizen Evaluator.
“The common commands learned there—Heel, Sit, Stay, Down, Come—make your dog a better home companion, more welcome in the community, and are vital to therapy work,” says LOAL Camarillo Chapter Leader Jeri Jennings, who makes weekly visits to St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital with her three long-coated Dalmatian therapy dogs, Becket, Tika and Katie. “The other vital requirement is that your dog must be able to work comfortably in a group with other dogs.”
A minimum of 10 hours of supervised visits—at least five of the visits with the same person—is another LOAL program requirement. Upon successfully completing the 10 hours of supervised visits, the person who observed at least 5 of the visits fills out a LOAL Visit Evaluation form, and the pet’s owner sends in a membership application. Once certified, owners and their pets volunteer their time to participate in various activities throughout the community.
“It’s a very satisfying way to serve the community and demonstrate the value of pets to the human community,” says Jeri.
Kuebler agrees: “It’s a beautiful outreach, the people involved with the program have hearts that are tremendous, to find the time to go out and put a smile on someone else’s face.”
To learn more about Love on Leash, contact Agoura Hills Love on a Leash Chapter Leader Mary Lou Miller at 818.964.3312 or visit LoveOnALeash.org.